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Poststructuralism

| 1 June 2001

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Poststructuralism in IPE emerges on the forefront of three issues: culture, power and history. In terms of culture, what poststructuralism tries to achieve is a respect for the real and material existence of people. This in itself invokes the question of power; both how power operates in society and everyday situations, and how it functions historically, informing the parameters of experience and behaviour. These parameters are seen as historically specific; unique to given apparatuses of knowledge and control. This concern for the interdependence of knowledge and power (or ‘power/knowledge’) is not simply reducible to familiar notions such as ‘identity interests’ or ‘cultural hegemony’. What is at stake is not the specific ways of doing things (denoted in French by connaissance), or the ebb and flow of ideology, but the schema within which actions become imaginable and find a coherence (savoir). These underlying knowledges form a matrix, or historical grid, within which a culture defines its relationship to the most basic and vital elements of its social existence (e.g., its relationship to discipline, to production, to security, to health, etc).

For the progenitors of IPE the main knowledge in contention was that of economy and capital relations. For poststructuralists, however, what lies behind the birth of capitalism (and ultimately the global political economy) is a more immanent question of order; of how societies are established and governed. Thus, like the Gramscians, poststructuralists are concerned with the question of social power. Yet unlike the Gramscians, the question of hegemony is not one of moral leadership or ideological consciousness, but the degree of efficiency with which bodies are organized, deployed and made productive. More than this, poststructuralists are concerned to reveal the ways in which subjects are encouraged, via the mobilization of particular discourses of truth, to constitute themselves as objects of knowledge, self-management and modification. Thus unlike the marxists, realists and liberals, power for poststructuralists is not simply the ability to say ‘no’. Rather, power is also the capacity to engender, to produce, and to optimize forces. Though similar in some ways to Susan Strange’s concept of *structural power, poststructuralists further deny that power has any structure, indeed that it has any essence at all. Rather, power is seen as invested within given practices and domains of knowledge (e.g., colonialism, political economy, theories of globalization, etc.). Power is at most a temporary illusion: the overall effect of a multiplicity of forces traversing bodies and societies. It is not acquired, seized or ever possessed. It is deeply contingent to the present; an insight which reopens questions of culture, history and politics. Through detailed study (sometimes called ‘archaeology’ or ‘genealogy’), poststructuralists aim to confront so-called ‘structures’, highlighting the fragility of things, and their openness to possible transformation.

See also:

power, modernity, world order

Further Reading:

Douglas, I. R. (1997) ‘Forget Globalization’, Available @ powerfoundation.org. On the genealogy and politics of globalism and globalization.

Escobar, A. (1995) Encountering Development, Princeton: Princeton University Press. From the author of one of the first sustained treatments of development discourse from a Foucauldian/poststructuralist perspective.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish, London: Allan Lane. One of the major philosophical voices of the 20th century outlines a history of the emergence of modern systems of power/knowledge.

This entry was first published in R. J. Barry Jones (ed.), Routledge Encyclopaedia of International Political Economy, Vol 3 (London: Routledge, June 2001).

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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche